By Saurabh Kumar
Throughout America’s history, populist movements have come and gone across the entire political spectrum, all with varying degrees of success. Why is that? The answer may lie with polarization. With the emergence of the Freedom Convoy, along with its American counterpart, the People’s Convoy, the flaws hidden within these movements begin to unfold as it becomes clear that partisan interests cloud partisan movements before they even get off the ground.
In late January, a large group of Canadians assembled to protest vaccine mandates for commercial truck drivers traveling between the U.S. and Canada, creating blockades on Parliament Hill. The aim quickly shifted to banning all Covid-19 restrictions in the nation and dissolving the government of Liberal Party Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, as established in a Kitchener Today interview with convoy organizer Jason LaFace.
Under the guise of advocating for the working class, the Freedom Convoy became a de facto gathering place for Canada’s right-wing. But the effort faced a huge disconnect given that it was powered by only a small contingent of commercial truck drivers, as 90% of Canadian truckers are already vaccinated according to Global News Canada. The disconnect between its stated advocacy for workers and its grassroots base was evident through the racist symbols such as swastikas and Confederate flags on open display, according to the Toronto Star.
In the world view, it became difficult for many to take the group seriously. Their incoherent message stemmed from flawed organizing—a falling point for many populist movements.
Due to the tribal nature and nuances of today’s politics, partisan organizers face the ever-increasing difficult task of creating clear objectives and laying out actionable demands when discussing their goals. According to Meredith Hahn, Adjunct Assistant Professor at Wagner School of Public Service, these shortcomings can prevent organizers on both sides of the political spectrum from achieving their goals. She pointed to the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements as two examples of movements on opposing sides of the political spectrum, but with the common goal of castigating the 1% under the guise of protecting citizens from predatory lending. Hahn observed that “What these movements did was fuel more political rhetoric, not necessarily more policy.”
With growing animosity between ideologies, the needs of workers have taken second place. Hahn also noted how racism and xenophobia are an animating feature of many right-wing populist movements such as “America First”. “In ‘populist’ campaigns like building the wall you don’t hear well articulated arguments about immigration policy’s effect on worker’s wages or job opportunities, so what you’re left with is a thinly-veiled, xenophobic, and isolationist point of view,” said Hahn, going on to explain how these movements rarely advocate for specific policies and instead opt for vague, impassioned demands.
In the current state of hyperpolarized politics, organizing an effective movement that truly works to consistently and effectively advocate for workers is always going to be near impossible. And while hateful noise is prioritized over more thoughtful appeals for specific policies, workers are tokenized. The Freedom Convoy ultimately failed to effectively prioritize the interests of the larger labor movement, leaving those workers with legitimate grievances with nothing to show for it. “It feels like a very cynical and transparent attempt to use populism as a slogan without being fundamentally worker-centric in its aims,” said Hahn.
“There’s always been people on both sides of the spectrum that hate the establishment,” Hahn added, saying populism can be really attractive for people of all backgrounds, especially those suffering from the disproportionate impacts of the pandemic, but that an effective movement needs to be powered by more than grievance. Without thoughtful demands, clear goals and principled leadership, performative activists and politicians leverage popular discontent to capture clicks, solicit donations and get partisan media attention without ever doing anything to truly help their constituents. “[Populism] creates not just more tribalism, it creates more radicalized politicians. Politicians who are celebrated for “owning” the opposition as opposed to making actual change,” said Hahn in closing.
It is hard to see a future for this nation where hatred is put aside for the greater good, but until then, the working majority will continue to get in the way of its own progress. □